Philip Mansel

Through Levantine eyes

Philip Mansel reviews a pair of books on Turkey

The corniche at Izmir had a magic atmosphere. Lined with cafés and orchestras playing every kind of music — Western, Greek, Turkish, Armenian — it had the reputation for making the gloomiest laugh. Though ‘terribly chee-chee’ (i.e., they spoke with a sing-song accent), the women were famous for their allure. The trade in figs, raisins and opium made the city the richest in the Levant; it had the first cars, first cinemas and first girls’ schools. Nowhere else, it was said, did East and West mingle in so spectacular a manner.

In 1919, as Giles Milton describes in this indictment of nationalism, Izmir Greeks welcomed a Greek army with flowers and an outbreak of looting and killing Turks. Turkish revenge was pitiless. After the entry of Mustafa Kemal’s triumphant Turkish army in September 1922, Izmir became hell on earth. Milton believes ‘the Turkish army deliberately set fire to Smyrna’ (the Greek name for the city, where Greeks, Turks, Armenians, Jews and Western Europeans had lived together for centuries). As the city centre burned behind them, 100,000 refugees or more gathered on the corniche, praying for ships to take them off. They became the target of Turkish ‘irregulars’, looting, raping and killing. All accounts agree that the combination of fire and death, stench and screams was ‘beyond words’.

‘No words can describe the awful effect’ of the wall of flames 100 feet high, remembered an Anglican vicar. ‘Awful, agonising, hopeless shrieks for help’ were heard miles away and remembered years after. The population of the city had trusted in 21 foreign warships moored in the harbour. But they had orders to protect only their own nationals, British, French, Italian or American. In the end the crews obliged their captains to take on board those refugees who did not drown while trying to reach them.

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